Home » ‘Shocking’: China travel concerns after Australian writer’s death sentence

‘Shocking’: China travel concerns after Australian writer’s death sentence

China’s “shocking” has raised fears among some activists and observers over travel to the country.
They say the case and ruling set a concerning precedent, with a former Chinese diplomat saying professional writers, journalists and activists should be particularly cautious.
Han Yang, a former junior diplomat for the Chinese foreign ministry, said Yang’s case, along with , showed a pattern of the Chinese government holding foreigners of Chinese descent as political prisoners.
Yang, a writer and pro-democracy activist, was critical of China’s government on social media before he was detained in 2019 on suspicion of espionage. He was charged in 2021 with endangering national security, .
He has , and it was revealed on Monday that he had been handed a suspended death sentence by a Beijing court. The sentence would be commuted to life imprisonment after two years if Yang did not commit any serious crimes during that period.

Chinese is one of the most common ancestries in Australia. Source: SBS News

“This is certainly very concerning, especially also considering the Chinese legal system is entirely at the whim of the Communist Party,” Han said.

“It’s not independent, it’s not transparent, and any decision made by the court is essentially a decision made by the Chinese political leadership and based on their political interest.”

He believes travellers of Chinese descent are more likely to be detained than those of other ethnicities.

“If they hold a person of Chinese origin, it will cause less media storm or media interest in the West compared to if they hold, say a Caucasian person. And that’s just a sad reality,” he said.
“The Chinese citizenship law is pretty vague and (the Chinese government) can interpret it whatever way they want.

“And sometimes they can still insist that even though you hold a foreign passport, you never gave up your Chinese citizenship and you’re still treated as a Chinese citizen in terms of criminal offence.”

‘I could be arrested’

Badiucao is an artist, political cartoonist and human rights advocate based in Australia, and described the death sentence as “shocking”.
“It’s shocking in that we understand China’s human rights record and the way they persecute dissidents that Yang Hengjun would be targeted, but what we didn’t expect is the sentence would be so severe and brutal,” he said.

“This is really triggering … it is casting a huge shadow, I believe, over the Chinese diaspora in Australia particularly, but also over the world as well.”

Badiucao, who has publicly supported Yang Hengjun and criticised the Chinese Communist Party, said Yang’s sentence was intimidating for Chinese people both inside and outside of China.
He said he believes he could face persecution if he travelled to China.
“I think that that is the real harm it has done; we have to regulate our speech and our behaviour in Australia or anywhere outside of China now in order to avoid being persecuted if we choose to go back,” he said.

“I believe if I go back to China or go anywhere around China … there is a possibility that I might be kidnapped or arrested and extradited back to China.”

A man wearing a black tshirt and black bucket hat speaking into a microphone

Artist and advocate Badiucao has publicly advocated for Dr. Yang Hengjun and criticised the Chinese government. Source: Supplied / Badiucao

Is it safe for Australian citizens to travel to China?

The Australian government’s Smartraveller website advises exercising a ‘high degree of caution’ around travelling to China — an advisory that was in place before Yang’s sentence was handed down.
“As previously advised, authorities have detained foreigners on the grounds of ‘endangering national security’,” the website says.

“Australians may be at risk of arbitrary detention or harsh enforcement of local laws, including broadly defined National Security Laws.”

Han said professional writers and journalists, or those have expressed personal opinions online, should be particularly cautious if considering a trip to China.
“I think it is certainly wise to be cautious, especially for those who have expressed opinions about the Chinese politics or politcal system before,” he said.

“And it certainly wise, if you don’t have essential business to do in China, I would suggest not to go.”

Speaking about Yang’s case, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said: “The people’s court heard the trial in strict accordance with the law and ensured that Yang Jun fully exercised his procedural rights.
“The court also respected and ensured the Australian side’s consular rights, including the right to consular visits and notifications, and arranged for the Australian side to sit in on the sentencing.”

SBS News has contacted the Chinese Embassy in Australia for comment.